So I’ve been thinking a lot about social protocol lately. What is the normal human reaction to things? Is what I’m feeling ok? I’ve meditated a lot on emotions (clearly. Since I wrote about it Monday), and tried to wrap my head around the public and private emotional domains.
Something that struck me was how cultures around the world seem to shy away from displays of sorrow. We only want the good. And we only want people to think we have our lives together and that they’re awesome, but that isn’t always the case. Life isn’t only what shows up on Facebook. Sometimes things aren’t okay. And that’s okay too.
I find it rather amusing in a tragic way that I used to find it difficult to even tell my therapist that I was not okay. Every time she asked me how I was, I would say good. Thankfully my nonverbal cues gave me away, and I mean if everything was totally fine why would I be in a therapist’s office in the first place? But I am totally caught up in this social script that goes like this:
“Hey! How are you?”
“I’m good! You?”
Because to say “to be honest my life is a hot mess right now” would be too much for us to handle. I’m in psychology and I don’t even know if in that instant I would know what to say if someone said that to me right now with a straight face. I say it sometimes, usually accompanied by a 🙂 or “hahah”, because God forbid I be serious.
But that’s the problem. Saying you’re happy and being happy are two different things. And I think we get very caught up in the should-be’s – the social scripts of how we should think and feel. And I think that’s part of the problem with mental health – feeling depressed isn’t okay, so we suffer in silence. We feel alone and unacceptable so we feel more depressed and isolated and unloveable. We tell ourselves that we shouldn’t feel sad, that we can’t be ourselves, and the pressure crushes us.
The other problem? We too often think we’re alone. Out of this understanding that our sorrow violates the norms of human functioning comes a belief that we are the odd ball out, we are failing being normal. You are not failing anything, and you are not the only one suffering. Imagine how freeing it would be to accept this?
I read an interesting passage by Ernest Becker in The Birth and Death of Meaning, in it he talks about how we know ourselves first through others (me) before we know ourselves (I). This struck me because we essentially put ourselves on the hands of others, we become what they want us to be. We talk about self-fulfilling prophecies in a lot of my classes and yet this thought has never struck me. Am I only me as I exist in others eyes? Is it then the discrepancy, the knowledge that our me and I don’t match. We feel split and confused.
I thought about this a lot because I am very much an open book, ask me anything and I will generally give you an honest, albeit potentially partial answer. I don’t come with much of a censor system. And I am a huge advocate for mental illness being something okay to talk about; for stopping the silence and shame of mental illness; and increasing the awareness. But I live a double life.
There’s the me that has my shit together. That knows exactly where I’m going and what I want. Then there’s the part of me that knows what it is to suffer, that cares too deeply. That questions if I’ve got it all figured out.
When I started applying to graduate studies I was told that the number one rule was to not talk about my experiences with mental illness. I felt like I had been punched.
Number one rule of Fight Club? Don’t talk about Fight Club.
I get it. Sort of. We want rational psychologists – the depressed can’t tell the depressed how to be less depressed. And I don’t want to get into grad school out of the professor’s pity – I do want them to see me as competent, intelligent, and caring. But at the same time I am mildly disgusted. I heard of a student who was forced onto a leave when the faculty found out he had a mental illness. I was told that even if the issue was resolved the faculty would still look at you differently. And I just want to scream – this doesn’t mean you’re broken and defective.
And so, despite my general openness, and my advocacy for awareness and acceptance. I don’t talk about this. But I want things to be different, I want it to be okay to walk up to someone and say, “I need a break. I’m not ok. I need help,” and have that person respond “That’s ok. You’ll be ok. Let me help.”
A few months ago I signed the “It’s Time To Talk” pledge. And you know what happened? I didn’t talk. I kept my mouth shut. Yeah I talked vaguely on here about body image and depression and suicide. I joke about cheering people up, I know that I am accepting of mental illness in others but I never opened up to the world, that I, a twenty-something woman with my life together, have known mental illness. I have seen its painful effects.
People don’t suspect that of me – in society we have this idea that those with mental illnesses are completely nuts, total hot messes, a sobbing mess in the corner, or else freaking out/hallucinating. Sometimes that is true, but the majority you might not even suspect. I went to class, I went to prom, I dated, I worked. Didn’t mean I wasn’t hurting.
Life hurts sometimes.
Sometimes it hurts really bad.
But pain is subjective.
And if everyone cries; if everyone is sometimes overwhelmed with the agony that sometimes comes with life; if everyone needs someone to tell them it’s going to be ok – why can we not accept this? Because maybe it means that if all these normal people can suffer depression, and anxiety, and eating disorders then what does this say about us? That we too may break down? Well damn, thank goodness there’s all these understanding individuals all around…
Acting like there’s something inherently wrong with the mentally ill doesn’t protect you and it doesn’t help anyone. Reach out, love everyone. It sounds preachy and cheesy, but you never know what someone is hiding. You don’t know what they’re going through, so smile at them because sometimes that can make the difference. If you’re suffering from a mental illness I’d love to hear from you – you’re not alone and only through talking about it can we break down all this shame.
I saw this video a few months ago, and it really inspired me.